Any minute now, President Bush is going to make a fateful mistake. He will announce that his administration will make a concerted effort to secure the prompt ratification of a deeply flawed multilateral accord universally known by its acronym LOST, as in the Law of the Sea Treaty.
When it comes to LOST, of course, prompt is a relative thing. It was first opened to signature and ratification in the early 1980s, but Ronald Reagan rejected it. In the mid-1990s, Bill Clinton resuscitated and negotiated a side-deal designed to fix, or at least obscure, what Mr. Reagan found objectionable.
Then, in 2004, the Bush administration decided to embrace the Law of the Sea Treaty. The argument seemed principally to be that, in the aftermath of the bruising fight over Iraq, doing so would demonstrate that the United States could still play well with its allies and other nations. Most were parties to LOST and are slavishly devoted to this and other treaties on the agenda of the Transnational Progressives (or Transies, for short).
Fortunately, a happy correlation of forces kept the Transies at bay temporarily. Despite an effort to secure Senate advice and consent to LOST in the parliamentary equivalent of the dark of night, a broad coalition of largely conservative and libertarian organizations came together in adamant opposition. Then-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, who had presidential ambitions, recognized the inadvisability of bucking such forces. To his credit, he also came to see how substantively problematic LOST would be and kept the treaty bottled up.
There things might have rested with the United States continuing to do what it has done since President Reagan's day: remain a non-party to the Law of the Sea Treaty, observing its unobjectionable provisions concerning navigation and transit rights, while not subjecting itself to the accord's myriad supranational institutions. The latter purport to govern the international sea beds and, according to some, the oceans and even the airspace above them.
Regrettably, a new correlation of forces is operating in Washington. The Bush administration is now under the influence of American Transnational Progressives notably, Foreign Service Officers like Under Secretary of State Nick Burns and his nominal superior, Deputy Secretary John Negroponte. Thanks to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's virtual domination of the international affairs portfolio, the Transie agenda is largely supplanting what once was the Bush 43 version of Reagan's exceptionalist program for peace through American strength.
To be sure, the leading edge of the sales campaign for LOST will not be the Foreign Service or, for that matter, its allies among various environmental and commercial special interests. (Don't ask how both the Greens and the deep-sea oil and gas industry can believe that the Law of the Sea Treaty will advance their programs; one of them is surely wrong.)
Rather, the administration is trotting out lawyers and other officials of the armed forces to make the case for LOST. In particular, the Navy, the Marine Corps and the Coast Guard are on record as favoring the treaty. Their argument has a certain superficial appeal: The treaty establishes rules of the road for littoral waters that are better than might otherwise apply and, if we are a party to LOST, we can ensure they stay that way. The alternative, we are told, is that the Navy will have to take risks to assert our rights to untrammeled innocent passage. And, frankly, we no longer have sufficient naval vessels or the political will required to undertake such potentially risky operations wherever necessary.
Sadly, being party to the Law of the Sea Treaty is not going to keep our foes from using it against us. Like those of virtually every other international organization, LOST's institutions (executive, legislative and judicial, if you please) are rigged-games. The United States will be routinely outvoted or otherwise unable to prevent infringements on its sovereignty and, yes, in all likelihood over time even its military operations.
Some earnest officers insist that should the latter happen, America can always withdraw from the treaty. Don't count on it. The only instance in memory when such a step occurred was the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and that took twenty years to accomplish. Moreover, it could only have occurred because the very survival of the nation could plausibly be argued to require it.
Even if the Navy and its sister sea-services were right about the value of the treaty from their parochial perspectives, roughly 60 percent of LOST's provisions have to do with the supranational management of two-thirds of the world's surface and its resources. The argument about whether such arrangements will prove to be in the long-term interest of the nation as a whole should be considered on their merits, not subordinated let alone ignored out of misplaced deference to some in the military.
The push President Bush intends to make for the Law of the Sea Treaty will win him few friends among his enemies. It will, however, cost him dearly among those who have steadfastly supported him, but are dead-set against the Transnational Progressives and their agenda. One would think that a man with an approval rating below 30 percent would not be so cavalier with what remains of his base, especially on behalf of so dubious an enterprise as ratification of LOST.